So here we are once again, enjoying the next instalment in the Final Fantasy series. With the thirteenth iteration, the series is just entering its troubling teens, but really the series is far from experiencing an identity crisis. Spanning a total of three discs, Final Fantasy XIII is the first single-player Final Fantasy title to make it to this generation of consoles.
Square Enix are well known for their amazing CG cut scenes, having produced two feature-length films in their time. FFXIII stays true to form. The in-game graphics are nothing to sneeze at either. It’s the best looking Final Fantasy game to date.
After one of those famous cinematics, the game starts with some Helghast-looking bad guys aboard a train. Soon you’re thrust into a battle against a flying machine. After which it opens up to a third-person view behind Lightning, a young female solider who’d probably kick the crap out of you for just being in her way.
You have full control over the camera while making Lightning run along corridors. And by corridors I mean that you’ll be literally encountering invisible walls when trying to explore where you shouldn’t. It’s pretty neat to see ships fly over top, and gunfire hit the ground in front of you, a bit of animation in the settings, but that doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. As well as Lightning you will end up controlling five other characters throughout your quest, who are all ready to fight. Every enemy is visible upon approach, there’s not a random encounter in sight.
A Metal Gear Solid exclamation mark materialises over an enemy’s head when it spots you. And then your foe will attempt to chase you down. In most cases you can dodge and run around them if necessary. You can also use certain shrouds (often in short supply), which you can activate outside of battles to sneak past enemies or to gain a pre-emptive attack.
The music is amazing as always, even without Nobuo Uematsu at the helm. But because you’re always moving place to place, there tends to be no tunes that stick to individual characters or locations like in Final Fantasy games past. It all starts to sound quite similar. Even so, the battle music is still drilling enough to keep your blood pumping.
The combat might be quite different to what you’re used to. You can only queue up actions for the party leader, the other characters are controlled by the AI. As well as letting you perform specific commands, there’s an auto-battle option which lets your character attack or cast magic depending on the paradigms in play – more on that in a second. Some may opt not to use it, but it really helps later on when things get frantic and you need to focus all your energies on switching paradigms. It’s the real guts behind battles in FFXIII.
So paradigms, what are they? There are six roles available; Commander, Ravager, Medic, Synergist, Saboteur, and Sentinel. Every character starts off with three that they specialise in. Choose a role for each character in your party and this makes up a paradigm. Some roles are defensive, some offensive. After playing a while you gain access to the Crystarium, which lets you develop new skills and magic. You don’t level up characters but instead, level up their roles.
Each enemy has a chain gauge which fills up after attacks, especially under the Ravager role. Of course the gauge goes back down if you leave it for too long. Nothing beats the feeling of staggering a tough enemy, so you can hurtle thousands upon thousands of damage upon its wretched form. It’s like letting off a giant can of fly spray.
Summons or “Eidolons” in this case, are more like Transformers in FFXIII. The characters hop on top a motorbike made out of two Shiva sisters, or a horse that used to be Odin. But for some reason you can only use the party leader’s Eidolon. Having used Lightning pretty much all the way through the game, I hardly got to experience the other Transformer-summons.
The story of XIII focuses on six characters; Lightning, the independent female soldier I mentioned earlier. Sazh, a gun-dueling nice guy, with a baby chocobo living in his afro. When the other characters tend to get all emo (I’m looking at you Hope), he’s there to spread some sarcastic cheer. And God knows they need it, when Sazh isn’t offering clever quips, Snow is found screaming “Serah!” in utter despair. It’s almost the new “Walt!” or “Jason!”.
At first I thought they were a bunch of boring stereotype personas. I didn’t like some of the characters at times but voice acting aside, I eventually grew to like them. I didn’t find the voice acting that bad, although some of the voices are a little grating. Vanille has a high-pitched squeal with just a hint of Australian, and Fang has a thick Aussie accent. But you do get used to it. After all, you have a 50 hour-or-so journey ahead of you. You also can’t change the characters in your party until about 20 hours in.
Although I would have appreciated a shorter game, that’s another can of worms entirely. For those that don’t mind sinking all their free time away, Final Fantasy XIII is the long-winded Final Fantasy you know and love.
While the game tries to focus on all six characters, it makes it harder to really gel with any particular one. Previous Final Fantasy games make you spend most of the game in the main character’s shoes, allowing you to really get to know a character. Now I’m not even sure if this game has a main character!
Overall, the game is pretty linear. For the first two chapters you’re entirely on training wheels and you can practically play the battles one handed. There are the occasional forks and shortcuts, but there’s no world map to explore, which I loved in VII and VIII. At chapter eleven it opens up to a great big valley where side missions and chocobos lay. It’s a bizarre contrast to the rest of the game. Linearity is what you get with JRPG’s, but I was still missing the fact there were no towns to explore along the way.
Instead, shops are uniquely located on the save points. Useful, but I miss wandering around, and talking to random townspeople. In XIII, you can prompt NPC’s to say something, but it’s only one line (all voice acted of course), so no interesting conversations here. And without inns there’s no where to stop and rest, to take a breather. There are a few enemy free spots, but for the most part it’s you running from one battle to the next.
Although there are the occasional switches to press, I wouldn’t have minded more interaction with the environment. The occasional puzzle or well placed mini-game couldn’t go awry. There were only several I can recount from memory; the robot riding was the most fun, while hunting down the baby chocobo was absolutely terrible in its execution.
Of course there are weapons and accessories that you can upgrade. The menus start to fill up with all the junk you collect – actually that’s my own personality showing up there, I can’t bare to sell stuff in case I may need it for later on! I used the weapons from the start of the game and kept upgrading them, which made any new weapons along the way pretty pointless. As for the shops, I couldn’t find anything worth spending my hard earned Gil on. After developing magic you no longer need phoenix downs or potions anyway, and with all the new shops opening, it got rather messy. Like trying to find a +10% resist wind ring in a heap of chocobo dung.
The usual Final Fantasy nuances are all intact. Gil as currency, a character called Cid, phoenix downs, chocobos and other familiar items, magic and things. Not to mention being a pretty tough game to beat.
Final Fantasy games have always been difficult, but by now they should really offer an easier difficulty or even strategies to beat certain bosses. I guess that’s where the strategy guides start to rake in the big bucks. A particular annoyance of mine is that you reach game over as soon as your party leader dies. I guess your teammates don’t have the brains to resurrect you. But seriously, some of us don’t want to spend hour upon hour retrying bosses.
It was no longer a challenge but a nuisance. For me it passed the stage of being a simple fence to climb over, to an impassable brick wall. You know it’s bad when a game makes you feel like you would rather be doing something else with your time. At first I thought no random encounters meant no grinding, but I eventually found out late in the game that sometimes you’re left with no other choice. Enemies do respawn after a while for this exact same reason.
The formula hasn’t changed too much. FFXIII is purely and undisputably a Final Fantasy game. If you still love those games then you’re bound to love this one, just like the trailer said. Again, the story is the focus and there’s a good bunch of characters. The battles also feature more predominantly than before. It’s more accessible in terms of you never getting lost. But there’s still a lot of customization and things demanding your attention that may scare away newer fans of the franchise.